STAGE REVIEW : A Pungent and Fresh 'Godot'

TIMES THEATER WRITER

It's amazing what can happen when "nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes." It's amazing how a play 37 years old can seem so pungent and so fresh. And so funny. It's still more astonishing, in hindsight of course, that so few people understood it when it opened at the Theatre de Babylone in Paris in 1953.

How smart we have grown.

We've obviously, en masse , caught up with Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot." The most remarkable aspect of the production that opened over the weekend at Taper, Too under the direction of Joseph Chaikin, is to show us how the play has not lost a dram of its stature or a whit of its wit.

Didi's and Gogo's cogitations on that barren stretch of ground under that single leafless tree are as comic and resonant as ever. And it isn't just because Shabaka's Didi (full name Vladimir) and Sam Tsoutsouvas' Gogo (Estragon) are such appealing counterparts. It's all there in the words.

Still, Shabaka and Tsoutsouvas also know how to make them live. Shabaka's Didi is all itchy crotch and vague philosophy. He stares in the distance a lot as he discourses, idly scanning the horizon for Godot in spite of himself. When he smiles at Gogo it's an unclouded smile--the joy of recognition and of companionship. Without missing a beat, he periodically examines the inside of his bowler hat, running a hand over his head, as if somewhere between the two there's going to be a gnawing insect that he's bound to catch.

Tsoutsouvas' Gogo is involved with other parts of his anatomy. His feet hurt as much as they stink and he's not sure about this Godot fellow that they're waiting for. Didi can't really remember why they're waiting for Godot, and Gogo's pretty sure that he's not even met him. It's not fear that we see in his eyes or hear in his voice exactly. Just discomfort. And perplexity.

Someone does come, eventually, but it's not Godot. The overbearing Pozzo (Robert Machray) and his satirically named slave, Lucky (Leif Tilden), a human wreck, crisscross this landscape as vociferous examples of Godot's worst handiwork: The master troubled by the servant (the rich troubled by the poor?), even as he taunts and humiliates him. That the meek might inherit the earth rings like an abiding, malicious threat in Pozzo's internal ear.

Tilden's presence, on a tether, carrying his master's heavy bags, has all the external wretchedness of the maltreated pariah. But the extraordinary speech he is required to deliver when Pozzo orders him to "think" was too loose-jointed at Saturday's performance. It needs compression and build--a spiraling agony--that was only nominally in place.

Machray's portliness, on the other hand, enhances his tyrannical Pozzo, who becomes hedonism made flesh, augmenting Beckett's notion of temporal man's defiance of the gods and odds. His tossing off of the bones takes on quite another dimension. When he returns blind and raging the next day, and falls over the now mute Lucky, the impossibility of his rising unaided from the ground seems absolutely real, and his unrepentance meaner than ever. It's a strong performance made stronger by a purely physical circumstance that Machray smartly is game to exploit.

Throughout the play, of course, is woven that silver thread of redemption vs. damnation--behind Pozzo's relationship to Lucky; behind the words of the young boy (Damon Motley) who delivers occasional messages from the absent Godot; in Didi's reminder that there is at least one semi-credible account that, of the two thieves who flanked the Savior on the cross, one was saved and one not.

This is a play full of echoes and indirection, of the uncertainty of reward or, from one day to the next, simple cognition. Didi and Gogo's consideration of suicide (the ultimate temptation and civil right) is bungled by circumstance (a tree limb that would break before the rope could kill them) and, more specifically, that blasted, inextinguishable fear of reprisals.

There is in this production yet another, even more subliminal echo: the fact that it is directed by the excellent Chaikin, who knows all about sudden corporal change. Chaikin, who is aphasic after having a stroke a few years back, must surely relate to Lucky's speech about "the personal God who . . . from the heights of divine apathia, divine athambia, divine aphasia loves us dearly, with some exceptions for reasons unknown. . . .

But "Godot" is also a play that one is better off watching not for its "meaning" but for its sheer entertainment value. It's bewildering how so much underlying seriousness could be presented to so thoroughly intrigue and amuse.

At the John Anson Ford Theatre, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hollywood, Tuesdays through Sundays, 8 p.m.; matinees Saturdays and Sundays, 2:30 p.m. Ends April 1. Tickets: $16; (213) 972-7392).

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